When Nikolaos van Dam was a young diplomat in Damascus, he knew Syria better than many Syrians. A fluent speaker of Arabic, this Dutch scholar’s first book on Syria’s modern history was so well researched that even members of the Baath party would reportedly turn to its pages to understand the history of their institution and the nature of the regime for which they worked.
Precise, polite, his analysis as cool and lethal as a sword, Van Dam also possesses a cynical – perhaps sarcastic – attitude towards the diplomatic elite that other officials might secretly admire. “It is better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing with terrible results,” he told me a few days ago. “But Western democracies feel they have to do something … If there had not been any Western influence, there would have been a tenth of the violence, the country would not be in rubble, so many would not have died, you would not have had so many refugees.”
It’s not that Van Dam blames the Syrian West for the war, but he holds it to account for the influence and interference it exercised so promiscuously. And his new book, Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, is perhaps the only one so far published about the conflict that attempts to set out coldly what the opposition as well as the Assad government did wrong.
Van Dam has never avoided talking about the torture and suppression that the regime has used to maintain power. He stated in the very early weeks of the 2011 demonstrations – in The Independent – that Syria’s crisis might well end in a bloodbath. He acknowledges the cruelty and stupidity with which the Syrian security apparatus turned to guns and humiliation and torture to suppress a largely peaceful mass protest movement inspired (or seduced) by the Arab revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But he also notes how early the “peaceful” opposition turned to violence once the crisis began.
On the Syrian border with north-eastern Lebanon, inside Lebanese territory but in sight of the plain of Homs in the spring of 2011, I listened to a fierce gun battle being fought only a few hundred metres across the frontier – at a time when only the Syrian army and the security police were supposed to be using weapons against unarmed demonstrators. A week later, an Al Jazeera camera crew – working for the Qatar-funded channel whose ruling family would soon fund the Nusra-al Qaeda fighters in Syria, as even its royal family acknowledged – asked to meet me in Beirut. They showed me footage also taken near the north-eastern border of Lebanon. Their tape clearly showed armed men shooting at Syrian troops. Al Jazeera, adhering to the “soldiers-shoot-down-unarmed-demonstrators” story, had refused to air their film. They had resigned. Later, Syrian state television itself showed – all too real – film of armed men among the crowds of protestors in Dera’a. Van Dam dismisses reports that these men were government “provocateurs”.
He does not dispute the Assad government’s killing of the innocent – though he suggests this came about through the inherent and untamed brutality of the regime’s security apparatus rather than a policy decision by Bashar al-Assad himself. Faisal Mekdad, the deputy foreign minister whom Assad sent to Dera’a (the minister’s home town), after the torture of children and killing of demonstrators, admitted to me that “bad mistakes” had been made there. But such “discoveries” were useless. Within months, the public’s demand for “reforms” had turned into an uprising determined to overthrow a regime that then resorted to all out-war against its enemies. Early reports of a massacre of Syrian troops by armed men at Jisr al-Chagour, dismissed by government opponents as the killing of army deserters by the regime, were, Van Dam concludes, true. The soldiers were murdered by those whom we would soon call “rebels”.